The Future of Teaching and Learning Will Always Need the Humanities

In panel discussion, faculty praise online learning but say nothing will replace liberal arts education

Ian Baucom says humanities disciplines are learning to take advantage of online learning and other classroom technologies.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
Ian Baucom says humanities disciplines are learning to take advantage of online learning and other classroom technologies. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

In looking at the future of teaching and learning, Duke faculty heard the expected praise for how online learning and classroom technology can transform education.

Less expected during a faculty meeting last week: a physician and a biologist stepping forward with a promising prediction for the humanities: Nothing will replace the value of the humanistic learning between a faculty member and a student.

Dr. Brenda Armstrong, director of admissions for the Duke School of Medicine, told Academic Council members Thursday applicants need more than a mastery of scientific principles. Also important, she said, is an education "that presents an example of how you integrate into community, how you transfer a set of values and communicate to communities notions of leadership for those who are coming behind you."

That kind of education requires a faculty fully engaged with undergraduates, giving them "opportunities for growth and stumbling," she said.  As an example, she only had to look back at her undergraduate days at Duke, where she was one of the first black students to desegregate Duke.  With Duke at a crossroads, Armstrong said some of the most important learning students received about changing "awful conditions" came not from texts and tests but from "people who parlayed brilliance and leadership with modeling."

"The education we want is not just in the classroom, but it involves work with individuals,” she said. “Without it, we are charging too much for an inadequate education."

As part of its celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Academic Council is holding three special conversations this year on the future of higher education.  A session in January looked at transitions in international and interdisciplinary education.

Thursday's session focused on how technology is changing learning, but panelists Armstrong, biologist Mohamed Noor and English Professor Ian Baucom frequently returned to the future of the humanities, acknowledging that the forces promoting online education sometimes have an agenda that has nothing to do with education and constitutes a challenge to the value of the humanities.

As someone who has taught a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and embraced technology in the classroom, Noor said online learning will never fully replace the learning that happens inside and outside the classroom between a faculty member and a student.

However, Noor said he was excited by the experience of teaching a MOOC, as well as a "flipped classroom," which discards the traditional classroom lecture model.

"In the MOOC, the level of appreciation was beyond anything that I had experienced," Noor said.  More than 10,000 students watched the videos for his course on "Introduction to Genetics and Evolution."

"I met a high school student in El Salvador who didn't like his biology class but who got interested in this class.  I heard from a train driver in Sheffield, England, who didn't have money for university but could take this class.  There was a great outpouring of support for Duke University from people who couldn't believe that a major university would invest time and effort for this for free."

Baucom, director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, said he was thankful for support for the humanities from the other panelists.  And he, too, praised online learning, saying he was sold on them when he heard a talk at Duke from a co-founder of Coursera about its goal to bring higher education to millions around the world who can't afford it. 

"That's a very compelling vision," Baucom said. 

But panelists also cautioned against overhyping online learning, with Baucom chiding that "a new domain appears to be emerging in what is essential for a university: If you don't have a MOOC, do you matter?" He added that educators should "be careful about the distinction between a course and an education."

As they always have, humanities disciplines will take advantage of new ways of learning, Baucom said.  The Franklin Institute is engaged with other units around the university on "team-teaching" and other educational opportunities that will better engage students on the most interesting questions of our time.  He added that Denise Comer of the Thompson Writing Program is developing an online writing course, showing that even the most subjective of humanities courses can be adapted to the new medium.